On August 26th 2016, the Klagenfurt University Cultural Centre UNIKUM opened the landscape exhibition ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ at the tripoint near the Austria market town Arnoldstein (1). The title means something between ‘in limbo’ and ‘in suspension’. Fifteen artists created works to be installed in the skiing resort around the mountain Ofen (Slovene: Peč, Italian: Monte Forno), where Austria, Slovenia and Italy share borders. The exhibition ran until September 18th, 2016. At the opening, around 250 visitors took the mountain cableway up to the tripoint, and explored the landscape through the lens of artistic interpretation. The day ended on the terrace of the mountain restaurant with a traditional Carinthian pasta dinner, musically accompanied by the sounds of jazzy world music interspersed by mixed-language border poetry.
Why would anyone establish a complex exhibition on top of a mountain, which is only accessible by chair lift or a strenuous walk covering 900 meters in altitude? TRACES partner UNIKUM did just that. At the Institute for Cultural Analysis at the University of Klagenfurt/Celovec, Prof. Klaus Schönberger and I are accompanying UNIKUM’s work as ethnographers and cultural theorists. The aim is to understand how long-term artistic work in the Alps-Adriatic region slots in with the transmission of contentious cultural heritage. Through participant observation, interviews, photography and casual interactions, the team explores how UNIKUM draws on everyday practices and objects to create unusual and often oppositional meanings which challenge seemingly clear-cut and often taken-for-granted discourses.
After having been to the opening, the obvious answer to the initial question ‘Why here?’ is: ‘because it works.’ But what makes it work? This paper explores some of the dimensions in transmitting contentious cultural heritage with the arts, which together create the impression that “it works”.
The Physical Dimension: Walking as a Way of Enjoying the Arts
UNIMUM’s most popular format of transmitting contentious cultural heritage with the Arts is to combine contemplation with the popular leisure activity of walking. Walking, as Wilhelm Berger explains in one of UNIKUM’s poetic hiking guides, is a method: the construction of space in the process of walking (2). In the border region between Austria, Italy and Slovenia, such re-imagining takes on a political quality. The celebrated diversity of Slavic, Romanic and Indo-Germanic heritages is tarnished by bitter memories of conflict and loss. Brutal attempts at creating linguistically and culturally homogenous national territories following the Wars of the 20th century have left traces that are tangible until today. UNIKUM invites its mainly Carinthian audience into this landscape, and to take in art in textual, visual, musical, theatrical or sculptural genres on the way. This may take the form of hiking, intersected by pauses for readings or music. Sometimes it’s a stroll along a parcour with different visual or audio-enhanced stations. ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ was realised as an art-trail. A printed map was provided for those who didn’t trust the signposting. Here is a fictional walk of what you might experience; the numbers relate to the stations as outlined on the map (IMGS. 02-03):
You arrive on the train line Villach-Tarvisio, which was built to connect the Hapsburg empire with Italy. Or you take the A2 motorway leading from Vienna down to Italy. As you enter Arnoldstein, you pass some architectural remains of the local mining industry, turn left at the large Billa supermarket, and follow a tiny, curvy road to the village of Seltschach where you find the valley station of the cable-car chair lift. You take a seat, and find yourself enveloped in almost perfect silence, suspended between fir-trees, skies and mountain. On the opening day, the silence was broken by occasional singers and musicians travelling downwards. You may notice first traces of the installations – figures suspended from lift pillars and buildings [n.1, Kunstsportgruppe Hochobir (IMG. 04)], signs in deep Europe-blue displaying a yellow star and a red-and-white border pole [n.2, Marietta Huber (IMG.05)]. Arriving at the mountain station, you may try to decipher the zippy red lettering above the entrance of the mountain restaurant [n.3, Nathalie Deewan (IMG. 06)]. Or your gaze pauses at the inscriptions on the windows around the patio, making you wonder which language these poetic words belong to [n.4, Jani Oswald (IMG. 07)]. As you walk up the first hill, the heavy counterweight suspended at the end of a ski lift may catch your attention – the sky above you is strangely mirrored on the lower side of the concrete block [n.5, Niki Meixner (IMG. 08)]. Walking across towards the highest lift hut of the mountain, your eyes may be dazzled by the reflection of a shiny aluminium neon sign, evoking memories of fun fairs and urban amusement [n.6, Hans Schabus (IMG. 09)]. Over at the next hill, almost in parallel to the Slovenian border at the edge of the wood, is another T-bar ski lift. You see white crosses travelling down slowly, slowly. On closer inspection, you will see what is camouflaged [n.7, Gerhard Pilgram (IMG. 10)]. A longer journey, which may leave you a little breathless, takes you to a small alp which serves regional snacks. Over a beer, you may contemplate the circle of artificial cowpats carefully arranged in the pastures [n.8, Cornelius Kolig (IMG. 11)]. Up towards the Tripoint, seven stations invite reflections on self and other, home and belonging [n.9, Nataša Sienčnik (IMG. 12)]. After passing a gathering of wooden haystacks painted in red [n.10, Ona B. (IMG. 13)], you arrive at the real ‘Dreiländereck’ with its various memorials. The ‘Kirchtagshütte’ is temporarily transformed into an art gallery, displaying photos of all 48 tripoints in Europe [n.11, Inge Vavra (IMG. 14)]. Downwards in the forest, an abandoned Italian barracks may bring up memories of a time full of fear and military deterrence, enhanced by a sound- and video installation [n.12, Inge Vavra (IMG. 15)]. Back on the pastures and pistes, another lift-hut houses a tiny cinema [n.13, Céline Struger (IMG. 16)]. Now you are already on the way back to the mountain restaurant. You pass the valley-station of another ski lift, where you greet the ‘pillars of society’: large photographs of the men who run the lifts here [n.14, Johannes Puch (IMG. 17)]. After walking up one last hill, you may indulge in homemade ‘Kasnudeln’ in the restaurant, before taking the lift back down. Again suspended, you are passing the lake which in winter is feeding the snow-machines – now you see the three-dimensional version of the Europe-signs from the beginning of your trip, yellow stars and red-white border barriers floating on the blue lake [n.2]. Once returned to the valley, you may pay a visit at the graceful automaton ballerinas who are doing their after-work dance in the depot of the valley station [n.15, Markus Zeber (IMG. 18)].
While you have been walking, looking and resting, you have also felt the wind in your hair and the sun on your skin, or you may have taken shelter as it starts raining. Your gaze has enfolded the Dobrasch, the Gail valley, the Julian Alps and the Karawanken mountain range. You may have noticed yellow signs informing you that Slovenian territory begins here, and you may have taken the classic photo of yourself standing partly in Italy, partly in Slovenia and partly in Austria. Besides seeing high-quality artworks, you have also encountered, with body and mind, the cultural landscape at the Dreiländereck.
De-centering Contentious Cultural Heritage
‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ invites us to take in current conflict through the lens of artistic interpretations in a landscape at the margins of Europe. It places a remote mountain area perched between three borderlines at the centre of artistic reflections on current uncertainties. The seemingly idyllic pastures and meadows around the Ofen mountain offer ample aesthetic material to highlight contemporary positions that are ‘in limbo’ or in ‘suspension’. What appears to be detached from the metropolitan buzz of change and perceived progress bears the marks of (de-)industrialisation and (de-)militarisation, of shifting border-regimes, of cultural conflict around language and economic conjunctures such as the rise and decline of skiing tourism in the face of global warming. In this way, the installation extends the notion of cultural heritage beyond seemingly harmonic objects and activities of touristic value, such as the celebratory driving down of livestock from alpine pastures, the provision of local culinary products, the performances of the local choir (3), or the producing and sharing of videos of lifts, landscape and folklore soundtrack (4). Making visible the marks of past and present conflict in this landscape reveals how heritage is always contested, conflicted and contentious.
In the 1990s, cultural theorist Stuart Hall noted: “Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed, I become centred” (5). A Jamaican-born black British-Caribbean scholar, his biography had placed him at the margins of a still colonial system. As the flows of globalisation accelerated, one-dimensional concepts of identity were challenged. Post-colonial subjectivities became models for the new, fluid and multiple identities of the post-modern age. Can heritage be de-centred in a similar way? What happens if the heritage lens is directed at the political and economic margins of Europe, rather than the centres where outstanding products of elite culture are assembled? Marginal regions, especially border regions like the Alps-Adriatic, have never really fitted into a geopolitical model made up of homogenous nations. Have they developed practices and attitudes, an immaterial cultural heritage, which can help Europe in facing contemporary challenges? And if so, can these be shifted to the centre of a new European imagination? Activities like ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ demonstrate methods to this end.
The Symbolic Dimension: Practices of Creating Multiple Readings
UNIKUM took on the task of condensing the critical symbolic qualities of the landscape around Dreiländereck in a collaborative process involving artists, companies and political bodies. Over a year, negotiations were conducted with funding bodies, the community council, workers and decision-makers from the company running the lifts and restaurant up at the Dreiländereck/Tripoint, artists were contacted, ideas developed, props and structures were meticulously built and installed.
The artistic result is a two-hours art-trail with fifteen stations designed by artists who are, in different ways, familiar with the area. Each station deals with uncertainties: about Europe, about work and technology, about centre and periphery, nature and industrialisation, war and ideology, subject and society. Ten of the stations are built around lift compounds, machinery and outbuildings as a canvas. The huts of the ski-lifts serve as gallery, plinth or even a cinema. Lift pillars, T-bars and machinery carry objects or are themselves transformed into objects. Restaurant and cableway-depot acquire new meanings through installations and lettering. Even the lake which feeds the snow-machines during the winter season is turned into an installation. Three stations are set in the landscape: Wooden haystacks painted in red are evoking the agricultural heritage of the area, a circle of artificial cowpats lighted by signal lantern provide commentary on both art and agriculture, and seven white plinths mark an abbreviated ‘Via Dolorosa’ inviting, with gentle humour, reflections on self and other, identity and belonging. The symbolic cosmology is completed by a sound- and video installation in a small, abandoned Italian military barracks, and an expertly hung photo exhibition of all 48 tripoints in Europe at the ‘Kirchtagshütte,’ which marks the ‘Dreiländereck.’
Everyday traces of past and present agricultural and touristic activity, of border-conflict and reconciliation are merging with artistic manifestations to become multi-dimensional, symbolic expressions of a heritage that is not necessarily canonised as such. Instead, ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ leaves it to us as visitors, artists, collaborators or tourists to create meaning and rise questions, as we put our own experiences in interaction with the transformed landscape.
The Social Dimension: People and Networks as a Temporary Community of Practice
Speaking to UNIKUM staff and board members, I get the impression that their work is driven by a passion for artistic craftsmanship combined with a critical political position and an intimate sense of caring for the contentious and sometimes apparently doomed cultural heritage inscribed in marginal landscapes of the Alps-Adriatic. Gerhard Pilgram, one of the directors, emphasises that a meticulous realisation can make or break an artistic idea. Details like a missing screw or smudgy lettering can ruin an artwork, while accurate handiwork and careful positioning often enhances a relatively simple idea. To facilitate such virtuosity, UNIKUM relies on networks of people with different roles and skills.
The exhibition could not have been realised without careful collaboration between the UNIKUM curators who conceived the project, the artists they invited, the craftsmanship of carpenters and other experts, the workers from the lift association, the landlord of the mountain restaurant, as well as representatives of the community. The lift workers agreed to have their photographs taken and displayed, and expertly presented themselves in the context of their respective skills. They also helped out in the installation process and dealt with the rush of more than 200 visitors at the opening day. The landlord of the restaurant agreed to have the lettering ‘Alhamdullilah’ (Arab for ‘thank God’) displayed over the entrance of the building, and grew to like it so much that he is willing to keep it – in a political climate where hostility against Muslims is increasing. He also produced 540 ‘Kasnudeln’ (a Carinthian version of tortellini) for the opening day, and proudly showed me the video documentation of this everyday heritage practice (6). A lady who lives nearby would like to place one of the artificial cowpats in front of her house, as a comment on exaggerated cleanliness. The workers from the social business ‘Soziale Arbeit Klagenfurt’ meticulously produced plinths and fittings down to the last screw.
Most of the artists were taken up to the Tripoint to get a feel for the area, and to explore suitable places to install their own work. Objects like Cornelius Kolig’s cowpats or Ona B.’s haystacks have been exhibited in many other places before; Nathalie Deewan’s Alhamdullilah lettering, although based on previous work with plays of work, emerged as a spontaneous reaction to the place by an artist who has a background of working with refugees and migrants. Conceptual and practical work was deeply intertwined: Celine Struger’s cinema installation (7) and Kolig’s cowpats were realised with the help of Niki Meixner; UNIKUM had approached photographer Johannes Puch to create an installation with the lift workers; Nataša Sienčnik’s Alpine Orientation Help on contentious identity politics owes much to the meticulous realisation of the plinths at Soziale Arbeit Klagenfurt; and Gerhard Pilgram’s Kreuzzug echoes his experience during a co-taught seminar at Klagenfurt University about war memorials in the Alps-Adriatic region. Hands-on support provided by the curators led one artist to the exclamation: ‘This is pure luxury!’ Rather than having to deal with each detail of her installation on her own, she had become part of an experienced and dedicated team, which took precise production as seriously as herself. Finally, the major of Arnoldstein has signalled interest in future collaborations.
Thus ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ generated a thick network of practice-based relationships, building on existing contacts and establishing new ones. While some may well be temporary, others will surely be activated again, and some future collaborations are already on the horizon. A goal-oriented community of practice has come together to realise an exhibition, based on previous relationships and collaborations, and opening future opportunities.
The Economic Dimension: What is the Proof of the Pudding?
Creating meanings and networks is all very well – but does it hold on the level of economic development? UNIKUM is aware that their artistic interventions are, on the economic level, merely a drop in the ocean. According to the landlord of the restaurant, ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ serves as a general advertisement for town and lift, as local newspapers are extensively reporting. It also brings an extra few hundred visitors who use the chair-lift and may consume food and drink at the restaurant or in the nearby alm-inn, or even stay overnight in Arnoldstein. But can an art project provide a significant positive drive in a region marked by economic decline? It might be more appropriate to examine UNIKUM as one of several players in the region besides tourism and agriculture, and evaluate its collaboration for instance with the Bergbahngesellschaft Dreiländereck cableway company.
Despite the general decline of small-scale farming, the Yellow pages list 20 agricultural businesses for Arnoldstein. Cattle are still taken up to the mountain pastures for the summer, and several people continue running small farms in addition to their day-jobs.
Arnoldstein never had a purely agricultural economy. Up until the 1990s, it had a century-old tradition of mining led, zinc and copper. According to the Biorem research project, the area has been contaminated for over 500 years. Metal content could be so high that locals were not allowed to feed the grass to cattle, and to grow vegetable in their house gardens (8).
After the demise of the Bleiberger Bergwerksunion mining company, the contaminated location was cleaned up, and new businesses were established, most notably the ABRG recycling company. This, in turn, has led to protest most recently in 2015, when it emerged that the company burned highly poisonous HCB (Hexachlorbenzol) contaminated soil.
Tourism relies on the Schütt Nature reserve, and on skiing tourism. Built in the 1970s as a major technical attraction, and renewed in the 1990s, the mountain cableway had initially been successful in attracting visitors. The land was leased from local farmers. Over the last decade, decreasing snow levels and climate-change induced warmer temperatures are leading to a decline of winter tourism. A lift-worker stated: ‘When temperatures are mild, even the best snow machines won’t help.’ It is unclear how long the cableway will continue running. The small alp-inn will close this year, as the landlady is retiring.
During the Cold War, Arnoldstein owed additional jobs to its location at the Iron Curtain, as military was stationed at the border to the state of Yugoslavia. While the opening of the border with the newly established Slovenia was welcomed, it also meant that the military jobs were lost.
The title ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ is long, awkward and complicated. Nevertheless, UNIKUM insists on using all three languages spoken in the area, not only in the title, but also in advertising material, instructions and during its guided tours. English, however, commonly seen as the European lingua franca, is rarely included: German, Slowenian and Italian cover most of the regional linguistic needs. The title directs attention to a cultural heritage in suspension: between Slavic, Indo-Germanic and Romanic cultures, between border-regime and border-crossing, militarisation and de-militarisation, between idyllic nature and the economic ups and downs of agriculture, mining, skiing and hiking tourism.
Some guests experienced ‘In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso’ as a pleasant walk in beautiful surroundings with the added benefit of artistic interpretation. Others experience it as a magnifying glass that brings forth current challenges in Europe. Others again are mainly interested in an unconventional art exhibition. For many, it was probably a mixture of all, with the added benefit of sociability. Artistic installations are placed in the pastures, forests and technical compounds. They temporarily transformed a landscape at the European periphery into a space thick with meaning, inviting reflections on memories of war and border regimes, on immigration and cultural cross-overs, on the changing face of everyday life at a time of massive social, cultural, technical and economic change. Europe is happening at its borders.
Today, it is unclear what will become of the area: Will the chair-lift, once a technical attraction in itself, continue to attract visitors? Will a new tenant be found for the small mountain cafe, when the present landlady retires? Will the forest take back the pastures and pistes, will they be extended into an alpine fun fair? Will the area be connected to the flows of globalisation, will new people arrive, like the tenants of the Turkish kebap shop Antolia, as local youths are departing to other parts of the world? On its own, art will hardly provide solutions. However, as an ongoing part of a specific social reality in all its dimensions, it may well add new, forward-looking and hands-on perspectives on European heritage.
(1) “In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso,” Dreiländereck – Tromeja – Tre Confini, 26 August – 18 September 2016, accessed 20 September 2016, http://www.unikum.ac.at/001_PROJEKTE_2016_FI/SCHWEBE_FI/001_INSCHWEBE_index_27082016.html. For an online dossier including photo-galleries, videos and descriptions of each artwork and the opening event in Slovenian, Italian and German: “In Schwebe – Vse Lebdi – In Sospeso,” accessed 20 September 2016, http://www.unikum.ac.at/001_PROJEKTE_2016_FI/SCHWEBE_FI/001_INSCHWEBE_texte_27082016.html.
(2) Wilhelm Berger, “Gehen als Methode,” in Slowenien entgegen: Zu Fuß von Klagenfurt nach Ljubljana, eds. Gerhard Pilgram, Wilhelm Berger, Gerhard Maurer (Klagenfurt: Drava, 2004), 13-22.
(3) Kvgfan, “Schau i von da Dobratschwånd (Das Arnoldstein-Lied),” accessed 20 September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTUeUn_pXTo
(4) Aig A, “Arnoldstein (Seltschach), ‘Dreiländereckbahn’ 3-CLD (JULI 2016),” accessed 20 September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2XEPqyRSoc
(5) Stuart Hall, “Minimal Selves,” in Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader: Welcome to Migranthood, eds. Houstaon A. Baker Jr. and Manthia Diawara (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 114.
(6) “Bergrestaurant Dreiländereck, Nudl-Kudl-Mudl,” accessed 20 September 2016, posted 15 September 2015 on facebook, https://www.facebook.com/Bergrestaurant-Dreil%C3%A4ndereck-192352447512563/videos/
(7) Celine Struger, “Ciao People! [Trailer],” accessed 20 September 2016, https://youtu.be/xHESOCN–NE
(8) “Biorem: Bioremediation of contaminated sites,” accessed 20 September 2016, http://www.univie.ac.at/biorem/location/europe-austria-karnten-arnoldstein-industriegebiet/